April 25, 2012

From Wilis to Almost-Kitris - It's Showtime!

After last week's near-collapse at the end of pointe class, I'm back full force! I almost got a little worried after that incident, it was the first time I had ran out of steam mid-way through our routine. We had just marked the choreography (very cool Forsythe-style) to refresh our memories, and it was the first full-out dance of the class - but already too much for me. I had to step aside and out of the way. That or stumbling over my own two feet, or even worse, fainting/puking right there and then. Gave my teacher Marie-Pierre a bit of a scare, she thought I had injured myself. But I was just exhausted, and needed nothing more than to rest and sit out the remainder of the class (only 10 minutes left). Which, admittedly, was the second time in five days. Seriously, I do not recommend taking three ballet classes in one day, not when you're still recovering from a cold. I had rested for a full three days, and two more would have been advisable, but I'm kind of stubborn like that. Before you scold me (I know I deserve it), I was fine already the next day. Had a great class on Thursday, an even better two classes on Friday, rehearsal on Saturday and a very awesome triple-set yesterday. Crisis averted. :)

Come to think of it, I seem to get a cold every time we start to rehearse for our spring recitals. It has never stopped me from taking part, but it is really annoying. Luckily we still have a full month before the show, so I can practice and take class without having to hold back. At least my timing doesn't suck. Can you imagine getting sick on the eve of your performance, especially when there's only one show each year? This year there's the added excitement of two dances, the small bit from Giselle I wrote about earlier, and a big group number. The latter is an eight minutes long mini-ballet for a corps of 18 ballerinas and one danseur. The music is from Minkus, and the choreography is from.. wait for it.. Don Quixote!

Of course it is a modified compilation of the original, we are not professional dancers or pre-pro students (though a few of the younger girls have had vocational training and are very good). Our "company" is put together from all levels, basic through advanced and ages nineteen to forty-ish. Most of us are dancing together for the first time. Some have never performed, while others have been on stage since pre-school. Me, I'm hardly a veteran, despite being the oldest of the gang. I have danced in front of a real audience for only six times. Then again, those times took place in the last three years and not in early childhood. Memories and experiences are fresh, the theatre is familiar and I'm in better shape than ever. I still get very nervous, though..

Last Saturday was our first group rehearsal. Our teacher Gabriella gave us The Talk, about how everyone is equally important - even when you're standing in line while someone else gets to dance two eight-counts more than you do. She is right of course. Our ballet starts with eight dancers (I think) lined up in diagonale. They do a set of temps lié arabesque, chassé and soutenu turns four or six times. I'm still fuzzy on the counts.. This first group consists of the basic and advanced beginner levels. After they complete the opening steps and move to form lines left and right, the first of three trios comes in. I'm with the second pas de trois, the intermediate gang.

Don't worry, I'm not going to write down the entire choreography.. But in case you're interested that much, my trio's first diagonale consists of glissade - assemblé ecarté - piqué attitude (efface), times three, change direction, chassé - temps levé arabesque - glissade - pas de chat, finishing down-stage right. Every group has its own entrance. After the final trio enters and takes its place, all of us dance together before changing formations again. And so forth.. I might give you more details in my next rehearsal-post, if you like. Or even if you don't like. ;)

The video below is for inspiration. I chose this particular excerpt because at 5:06 the ballerinas are doing he same jump we are - and this one was totally new for me! It's like a small grand jeté, except you jump without prep and the back leg is in attitude. In our version we are doing six, with quick pas de bourrées in-between and changing directions for every saut. It's quick and tricky and I'm still working on it.

All in all, our dance is really fun and energetic, and I think it will be a big crowd-pleaser. There are Spanish influences (in the style of Don Quixote), hand-clapping and finger-snapping, quick steps and big jumps and we even have our own matador.. What's not to like?

April 24, 2012

Jilted, Dead and Haunting - It's Showtime!

We started our spring show rehearsals last Friday - and not a day too soon, might I add. The performance is in five weeks, which unfortunately does not equal five weeks worth of rehersals. But then we would be dancing in some Fancy Company, and not in our dance school's spring recital. To be fair, more time was planned. We were supposed to start as early as February/March, but then there were circumstances which could not be helped. Still, better late than never. In addition to our regular classes (which are reserved for technique practice), we get to rehearse the choreography every Saturday for two hours, right until the final weekend of May when it's showtime. Am I excited? You bet!

This spring recital marks a sweet premiere for me. It's my first time in pointe shoes, on stage. After practicing pointe technique for approximately a year and half, I finally get to take my babies to the ball! The party lasts only for two and a half minutes (not men), but.. it's Giselle! The first ballet I ever saw performed live! I was twelve years old and thought it the most beautiful thing ever. And now I get to be one of the wilis [insert sigh of happiness]. Pointe-wise it's not a difficult piece, there are some bourrées couru/suivi, a few pas de bourrées and a nice set of piqués with battements double. I kind of wish there could have been a little more pointe technique, but I know what feels "easy" in class turns into a challenge on stage. What am I saying? It's Giselle, for crying out loud! Sigh..

There are many versions, and subtle differences especially in the port de bras - but this version below comes pretty close to ours. There are only eight of us, which lessens the corps de ballet effect somewhat, but it's a nice group to dance with. Our bit starts at 0:12 and ends at 2:50.

Oh, I should mention that this is not the only piece in which I get to perform.. But I tell you more about that in my next post! :)

April 16, 2012

Letting Go

I had to skip my ballet class today. Apparently it's flu season and I caught me some, hacking cough included. I was already feeling it last Thursday, and even more so the next day - but I just kept going to class! And I don't regret it, even though I had to skip allegro on Friday and lie down for a while. That actually sounds more dramatic than it was. I did the first small jumps, then took a ten minute rest'n'stretch before continuing with pointe class. Really happy that I did, because we finished that First Variation from Paquita! It's the same variation that had me writhing in discomfort when our teacher introduced it. I didn't think it suited me, didn't think I could do it. Read about it here. Hah! It can be so good to be proven wrong.

Sometimes I take ballet a little too seriously. I have a tendency to over-think when I should just be dancing, and I tend to demand too much of myself. I'm not saying that you should leave your brain in the locker and say nay to any ambition, but you gotta chill a little. Give yourself the opportunity to fail before you eventually get better. If and when you make mistakes or mess up or look funny doing it, chuckle it off and move on. Once I realised that I did not have to pretend to be another pretty teen princess, but that I could go for elegant and womanly - someone with character - I relaxed into the dance. And of course I had made an unnecessary fuss about it, since we were not practicing that variation for the stage. Our teacher chose it because you get to learn a lot of technique, and dance too. Enjoy yourself, you know?

Last Friday I did just that. I don't know if it was the cough syrup, or the fact that the steps had finally sunken in. Up until then it had always been on the verge of a Monty Pythonesque silly walk, what with coordinating the tricky port de bras to the feet stepping on pointe. You can review the section here, I have timed the video link to the right spot. Alina Somova is dancing, and she does it lovely. For me, the being on pointe was the easy bit. I love doing those steps - you're so high up and it's not like any other kind of walking. Right, I hear you. It's ballet! The arms, however, were a challenge from the beginning. They have to be fluid, soft and alluring - but they don't have to be exactly the same for every dancer! Once I understood that, it gave me the freedom to let go. My feet already knew where they were going, and finally the rest of me followed suit.

And you know what? I felt so beautiful dancing it.

April 11, 2012

So You Think You Can Teach?

Sometime ago Madame asked me if I had done any teaching yet. First I was confused, then I was floored - she was talking about teaching ballet! I was almost too quick to answer "no, good heavens no.." But, as Madame had started the conversation, I dared to say that it had at some point crossed my mind. You know, teach a basic class to adult beginners. Still, I was blushing as I said it - I had always thought that any professional teacher would consider my potential teaching ambitions presumptuous. But it was Madame who was asking, and she seemed both sincere and serious about it. Even better, she thought I could do it. Teach ballet!

Dear Readers, I haven't gone crazy. I know there's a difference between giving class and teaching class. I could never match the skill and experience of someone who has had vocational training and  or a professional career performing. Not even if take class for another twenty years. Then again, not every student needs a master teacher at every level! There are many fine teachers who have had only a brief career on the stage. My first teacher was trained in classical ballet, but performed as a contemporary jazz dancer. Still she was a very elegant ballerina, in every way. But how great a dancer do you have to be, to be a good teacher?

A master teacher can be in her seventies, and poke you with a stick do drive a correction home. She will also have many decades worth of experience, authority, a keen eye and a real passion to pass on her knowledge. A great teacher will know which buttons to push and when. She will coach, guide, motivate and inspire her students. That and knowing the entire ballet vocabulary, its steps and sauts, the technique, musicality, history and artistry involved. A good teacher is able to analyze and deconstruct steps, to teach progressively, and to give her students the tools to understand and advance. Knowing all this, I have tremendous respect for my teachers.

Looking at the list of qualities and requirements I just wrote, I can't really see myself teaching ballet. Not seriously, not when there are so many other and more capable dancers/teachers around. I feel like I would be cheating potential students out of something. Then again, I have not been dancing for the past twenty years without ever engaging my brain.. Much of my ballet-education has been a back-and-forth dance between different schools, teachers and levels. When I was allowed to to challenge myself in a higher level class, I knew to stay in the back and not ask any questions. Instead I watched the teacher and everyone else and worked out the steps by myself. The good old "fail again, fail better", or the way of trial-and-error - those were my methods of learning. And still are, to a degree. Luckily, I also have the best teachers to show me better ways!

There are some things that I've figured out over the years, which could be helpful to others as well. Sometimes teachers don't (immediately) understand why certain steps or sequences might confuse us adult dancers. In diagonale, it is not always the new jump that is being taught, but the steps preceding it. What is the beginning position, which foot goes first and how do I get from A to B? For those teachers who have gone the route of talented bunhead - vocational student - professional ballerina, ballet is imprinted on their brain. As natural as walking. For adult students, it can be like learning to walk all over again. Possible, but challenging in unexpected ways. I have been there.

Long post short, it is unlikely that there will be a teaching career anywhere in my future. I live in Big City, and there are enough ballet teachers around as it is. Our schools prefer trained professionals anyway (which is good). Although, if I had the chance, I would love to try it sometime. Just between friends and fellow adult dancers. I think teaching would be a great learning experience. 

April 8, 2012

Dancing Against Time

At least one of my ballet teachers has me figured out. The preceding conversation went along the lines of "ballet is more than a hobby.. it's your passion, yes?" It wasn't even a question, but a statement underlined with a knowing smile. For a second I feared Madame was going to say obsession, what with all the ballet blogs I write and the classes I never miss. I told her that it's been like this for some twenty years now, more or less. Okay, there have been times when my relationship with ballet was an on and off love-affair, even times when I didn't dance at all. But I know that I'm not getting any younger..  Now I just want to dance as much as I can!

For once, I was met with sympathetic understanding. Madame said she had felt the same way when her performing career was nearing its end; a strong desire to dance and a sense of urgency. Much unlike your early twenties, when there's no apparent limit to time and opportunity! Of course I'm not a professional dancer, and no artistic director is going to end my contract and have me bid farewell to the stage. Ballet is hard, but I've had it comparatively easy. One or two classes a day, four to five times per week. Pro-ballerinas, on the other hand, have class in the morning, then rehearsals, followed by a short break, warm-up class and finally perfomance. Ice, rest and repeat on the next day, and the next.. No wonder dancers peak around their mid-thirties!

Counting in ballerina-years, I'm old. Old enough to retire and let the next generation take over. But thank goodness I'm no ballerina! Au contraire! As an adult ballet dancer I have still plenty of mileage left, and I hope that I get to perform at our spring shows until I'm old enough to be wheeled on stage. Aurora's grandma, anyone? Fact is, I'm in better shape than I was ten years ago. Stronger too, even more flexible. But..

I am dancing against time. Another birthday is looming around the corner, just three ballet classes away. Ten years from now I might be a more expressive dancer, but I won't be as strong. It is highly unlikely that I will have the same "wonderful jump" (teacher's words, not mine - and too nice not to share :). It is improbable that my extension will get any higher or my pirouettes turn better. Dance keeps you young(er), but inevitably we will all dance our way down-hill. Which is not that bad, as long as you adjust your expectations, pace yourself and enjoy the ride no matter what. But, I'm not quite there yet.

I still have the energy and drive to take three classes on a given day, and I'm more than happy to dance most of my spare time. My body can still take the push, do the deep back-bends and jump high and far. I know it will not last at this level, not forever, certainly not for ten more years. Which makes tomorrow, the following weeks and months, this summer, next winter and the spring thereafter all the more precious. Then again, the only time to dance is in the present. Next class is on Tuesday, and there will be no more talk of old age and such! :)

April 7, 2012

High (On Ballet)

I always leave ballet class happier than I came in. No, that is not entirely correct. Most of the time I'm as happy going in as I am coming out, because I know what to expect. There is the familiar sequence of barre and center, of course, and that of adagio and allegro. I know that my teacher is going to put us through our paces and that there are going to be lots of corrections. Real work and sweat. Praise too. Also moments of self-doubt and of frustration. But class is more than the sum of its parts. Any which way I do my reckoning, it all adds up. Ballet does me good.

A good ballet class is already a fine thing to have and behold, but sometimes it gets even better than that. Call it pay-back for doing time on the learning-plateau, or call it a really good day. Or call it like I do: the bestest high! I had such an awesome class last Tuesday, and I'm still riding it. Actually, it was class times three: my Super-Tuesday-Triple-Bill with Marie-Pierre. Not the official name in the class schedule, but it might as well be! First off, the basic level with mostly barre-facing exercises. You might think that after 20 years of ballet there is not much to gain from a beginner's class, but then you would be wrong.

For one thing, there is always room for improvement. For another, a basic class lets you work on your basics, clean up and maintain what technique you already have. When you have four counts for one ronde de jambe instead of two, there is that much more time to be aware of your turnout and your heel alignment. Let me explain how it worked out for me.. Since November 2010, Marie-Pierre has been persistently coaching and coaxing me to realise my full potential en dehors, along with improving the arch and instep of my pointed foot. And you know what? The results are finally showing off! By no means has it been an over-the-night-success; I had to do both the mental and the muscle work. But this past Tuesday, when my leg was in degagé derrière, my teacher told me once again to turn out more - and I did. Then she took hold of my foot (again) and showed how much more I could and should pointe, and how to hold the turnout at the hardest part of the ronde - and I did. The difference was real and visible and it felt totally awesome. Better than any A+ I ever got in school!

That alone would have had me on a ballet-high, but there were still two more classes to learn and to dance. Really, how lucky can you get?

April 1, 2012

Dare to Dream

I remember that Saturday from five years ago so well, it was after ballet class in the old Alexander Theatre.. My teacher Jill was walking her bike alongside me because it was nice to talk at the same time. I told her that I would never ever quit dance again. I had been back in ballet for about half a year, and Jill had just informed me that I was doing well enough to re-join the intermediate-advanced level. I was already happy that I had rediscovered pliés and ronde de jambes and sauts, everything else was the cherry and hot chocolate sauce on top of a very large sundae. I told her how good it was to be in class again, and that I didn't feel like I would have to keep up with the younger crowd anymore. She laughed, and said something about how she no longer looked into the mirror herself. Silly really, since Jill was fit and fab at fifty still. Anyhow, she said she was happy to have me back. It was a sunny day, early spring yet.

Life rarely goes as planned. That same year, late in summer, Jill died a sudden and untimely death. I had seen her the evening before, she was teaching a yoga class and appeared to be in the best shape of her life. Three days later I attended her funeral among hundreds of grievers. I was devastated - Jill had been my first ballet teacher and a huge influence in my early twenties. Five years later, I still miss her at times. I wish I could show her that I have continued to dance to this day, that I never quit, never gave up again. I wish she could see that the out-of-shape duckling from then has almost turned into a swan (of sorts). I wish I could tell her that I dare to dream again.

Today I watched Finnish ballerina and étoile Minna Tervamäki dance her farewell performance in La Bayadère. Five years ago she honoured the memory of my teacher Jill by dancing the Dying Swan at her memorial. It was heart-breakingly beautiful. Today Minna danced the part of Nikiya, for one last time. As usual, she was the epitome of elegance, assured and soulful. The standing ovation that followed a testament to her wonderful career. After the curtain rose for maybe the fifth time, Minna stood alone on the stage, head bowed to her thankful audience who did not want to let her go with anything less. I cannot imagine what was going through her mind right then, how she felt at that moment. Gratitude, bliss, loss, love, happiness? But I do know this: she is one who dared to dream.

In class you can always try, fail, try and get up again - but there is a limit to how long you can hold back your dreams to wait for another day. Dream of turning triples? Don't be scared of turning doubles and falling on the floor. Dream of dancing on pointe? Put in the work, and then you get to put on those shoes. Dream of dancing on stage? Then get ready to be the best dancer you can be, even if you're in back row and third from the left. Dream a little, or dream big - but be happy with whatever you can get.

Since that Saturday of March 2007, a lot has changed. I have changed. For one, I can keep up with students half my age. Though I'm kind of dismayed that any girl half my age is no longer in kindergarten or even high-school! Seriously, is everyone else getting younger or is it just me getting older? Never mind, what counts is that I'm not done yet! I can still get stronger, learn new steps, turn triples and present myself. And hello - pointe shoes! That used to be a dream I had buried long ago. But this spring I might, possibly, even get to dance on stage - on pointe! Darlings, sometimes the dreams you dare to dream really do come true.

To That Special Ballet Teacher

To that special ballet teacher, who not only teaches you about technique, but helps build your confidence, nurtures your inner artist, ...